Emerging diseases present a challenge that brings together scientists, health care providers and policy makers. Which scientific collections can help predict the future course of a disease?

  • Major Partner: U.S. HHS
  • Report from the Interdisciplinary Workshop available now!

How do you study Emerging Diseases in Scientific Collections?

Emerging diseases are not confined purely to a medical context, but rather exist in the realms of researchers, institutions, healthcare providers and policy makers. We at SciColl aim to catalyze the growth of a global network of these individuals and organizations in order to streamline cross-disciplinary efforts of disease research and response. Scientific collections offer a unique resource for research, both on past epidemics and current diseases.

Animal- and plant-specimen collections in museums have historically provided scientists species standards and the ability to trace disease distribution patterns over time and space. Medical collections contain large strain and tissue repositories to analyze current and past diseases. For example, scientists can compare a pathogen’s genome to known sequences to determine if the pathogen is new or re-emerging.

With the development of new, more virulent diseases, scientific collections offer a diverse array of research material for a comprehensive understanding of particular diseases. New DNA technology can track the course of a disease over hundreds of years and across oceans and continents. A changing population and landscape present even more challenges in the scope of health care.

Scientific collections can be a shared resource in a network that spans various disciplines and continents. By combining research efforts, these collections increase the potential to predict the behavior of future diseases and the location of future outbreaks.

Major Partners: US Department of Health and Human Services

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) was created under the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to lead the nation in preventing, preparing for, and responding to the adverse health effects of public health emergencies and disasters. ASPR focuses on building community health resilience through preparedness planning, response, and recovery; building federal emergency medical operational capabilities; countermeasures research, advance development, and procurement; and grants to strengthen the capabilities of hospitals and health care systems in public health emergencies and medical disasters. The office provides federal support, including medical professionals through ASPR’s National Disaster Medical System, to augment U.S. state and local capabilities during an emergency or disaster. ASPR engages with international partners to create an all-hazards approach to improve global capabilities to deal with public health emergencies including those that arise from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats, outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases, and natural disasters. Accordingly, ASPR leads international programs, initiatives and policies to strengthen domestic and international public health and medical emergency preparedness and response.

One of the many priorities of ASPR is science preparedness, which is a collaborative effort to establish and sustain a scientific research framework that can enable emergency planners, responders and the whole of community to better prepare for, respond to, and recover from major public health emergencies and disasters. Science preparedness is not a practice in and of itself. It is the result of the coordination and integration of sound scientific research, a comprehensive research infrastructure, leading public health practices, and all-hazard emergency management efforts. The advancement of applied outcome measures through scientific research before, during and after a disaster or public health emergency provides a finite window of opportunity to identify, collect and analyze critical and time-sensitive data and information needed to protect the health and safety of responders, communities and our nation, both immediately and long term.

Two-day workshop, 23-24 October 2014, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The workshop explored the types of scientific collections that can contribute new and valuable data to our understanding of infectious diseases and our ability to predict the emergence and spread among animal and human populations. Representatives from a diverse range of fields, including medical researchers, veterinarians, public health officials, and wildlife scientists, convened for two days of in-depth discussions as part of a preliminary effort to promote interdisciplinary collaborations and communication.

Press Release
Meeting Report

Day 1's sessions were devoted to the presentation of case studies, afterwhich panelists from different disciplines were given the floor to describe how collections under their purview had or could have contributed to the case study.

Topic Presenter Title
Opening Remarks David Schindel
Chair of the SciColl Executive Board, Smithsonian Institution
Scientific Collections International and Zoonotic and Human Disease Research
Keynote Address Stephen S. Morse
Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health
Windows into Emerging Infections
Emergence & Detection Joseph A. Cook
Museum of Southwestern Biology & University of New Mexico
Emergence and Detection of Hantaviruses in Southwestern US and Beyond
Characterization David Rollinson
Natural History Museum London
Value of Collections for Characterizing NTDs: The Case of Schistosomiasis in West Africa
Mitigation & Intervention Judy Hewitt National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health Outbreak of a Novel Hemorrhagic Fever in Southern Africa and Virus Identification
Prediction & Monitoring Gene G. Olinger, Jr National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health Prediction and Monitoring - Goal: Early Warning System, Data: Leading and Lagging

Day 2’s sessions were entirely discussion-based with the goal of compiling new strategies for collaboration, communication and scientific collection use across disciplines. The results of these discussions are the basis of the meeting report.

These topics included:

  • Examples of cross-disciplinary efforts that streamline the transfer of collections-derived data and information;
  • Data gaps and/or instances of disconnect between stakeholders and scientific collections;
  • Novel approaches to research, communication and cross-disciplinary integration of data provided by scientific collections; and
  • Changes in institutional, national, and international policies, procedures, and best practices that could enable these novel approaches by facilitating access to and sharing of samples from scientific collections.


Genomes of museum specimens have been studied to understand when Tasmanian devils were first affected by contagious cancer and how genetic diversity might play a role?